“I always kind of dismissed it as a platform for dance and sing content and thought there was no place for more serious topics like taxes,” says Fabian Walter, a tax consultant from Freiburg who calls himself @Steuerfabi on TikTok. Nevertheless, the thirty-something tries his luck in April 2020 and uploads a video on a tax topic. Since then, @Steuerfabi has added another video every day. Sometimes it’s about Section 8b of the Capital Gains Tax Act with an asset-managing GmbH, then again about the question of how much of one’s laptop one can deduct from tax.
TikTok reminds us of television
@Steuerfabi manages to explain the finer points of German tax law in short clips. But he has made it a little easier in the meantime. Initially, videos on TikTok were only allowed to be 15 seconds long, then the maximum length was extended to one minute. Now videos can also be three minutes long. Either way, TikTok videos are “snackable”, meaning they are as easy to consume as a bag of chips. You can watch TikTok clips while standing in the lift, riding the escalator or waiting for the pedestrian lights to turn green. You don’t have to do very much, you finish watching the videos you like, you wipe away the videos you don’t like. It reminds you of zapping. Zapping at speed. download from twitter
The algorithm decides which clips go through the roof
At the heart of the video platform is an algorithm that is said to have almost uncanny curating skills. Allegedly, all you have to do is watch TikTok for a few minutes and the app will present you with exactly what you want to see. And unlike Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you don’t have to follow anyone. TikTok knows what you like – without any “like” buttons. The place of longing for many TikTok influencers is the so-called 4You-Page, if you will, the start page of TikTok.
“The good thing, of course, is that every video can go viral,” says Saskia Bidel, aka @Besassique. The 24-year-old’s TikTok videos have been liked a total of almost 80 million times. “With Instagram, you always have such a continuous number of likes and impressions, and with TikTok, it can fluctuate a lot. It can be anything from viral to a total flop,” says Bidel. With TikTok, it is not so important how many followers or subscribers you have, anyone can land a viral hit. That’s why you always have to reinvent yourself in order to be successful on TikTok.
As a creator, how do you please the TikTok algorithm?
Saskia Bidel mainly makes craft and DIY videos on TikTok. She shows how to make fortune biscuits, reduce worn-out hair ties, make an anti-stress ball, clean up a make-up table properly and get rid of annoying pimples. The appearance of @Besassique is highly professional, the videos are very well made. @Besassique manages to appeal to her target group, i.e. younger women.
Some of her videos have “only” a few thousand views. But then there are also real blockbusters, like a clip in which Saskia makes a Valentine’s card. Zack, five million views – as many as the viewing figures for the sports show. “Anyone who says they don’t think about how best to crack the algorithm is probably not telling the truth,” says @Besassique in an interview with BR24. “After all, you put a lot of love and time into the videos and then you want them to be seen.” Pleasing the algorithm and staying true to yourself is sometimes a balancing act.
The algorithm remains a well-kept secret
Exactly how the TikTok algorithm ticks is a well-kept corporate secret. “It is probably not just one algorithm, but a whole series of algorithms,” suspects Marcus Bösch, who writes the newsletter understanding-tiktok.com. But perhaps the algorithm is ultimately more unspectacular than one might think: “Like any other app, TikTok naturally tracks user behaviour and by constantly looking at content you feed the algorithm,” says Bösch.
The fact that TikTok knows a lot about its users could also mean that China knows a lot about TikTok users. Because Bytedance, the company behind TikTok, is a Chinese company. Time and again, TikTok is eyed with suspicion because of this. Time and again there is talk that the data of Western users could fall into the hands of the Chinese government. Donald Trump wanted to ban TikTok in the USA without further ado. There are also repeated rumours about censorship, for example about content for the LGBTQ community, including homosexuals or trans people, being sorted out by the algorithm.
At least when it comes to data protection, Markus Bösch’s criticism is sometimes too simple: “We also find many questionable mechanisms on Facebook and Instagram. But people have obviously already got used to that, in contrast to this new player,” says the TikTok expert.
Fake news slinger TikTok?
So maybe the problem is not necessarily that TikTok comes from China. But that there are problems with TikTok is hard to deny. These are problems that one also encounters on other platforms, such as disinformation and political and religious extremism; Salafists, for example, also cavort on TikTok.
The crucial question is: Is the problem bigger on TikTok? Possibly. Because the fact that videos by unknown people without many followers can suddenly become hits can also lead to content that, for good reasons, tends to be found on the fringes of society suddenly being flooded into one’s own TikTok stream. In addition, TikTok is getting bigger and thus more interesting for all those who want to spread disinformation.
TikTok vs. Facebook & Co.: competition stimulates business
TikTok reminds me a little of the early days of YouTube, when the video platform’s slogan at the time, “Broadcast yourself”, was still taken seriously. Back then, everyone just started broadcasting, no matter whether there was a pile of bed linen in the background or mum was traipsing unflatteringly through the picture. It was new, it was exciting, just as TikTok is new and exciting today.
So it’s no wonder that TikTok is attacking YouTube in particular with longer and longer videos. But that’s not all: TikTok is aiming high, also wants to become a live platform and offer shopping features, is experimenting with games and virtual reality. Of course, other companies, first and foremost Facebook, are copying TikTok, but so far this has not been able to harm the original from China. And no matter what one thinks of TikTok, its success also has a good side, because competition is known to stimulate business. And there can never be enough competition from big monopolists, especially o